Symbols of death
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Images that represent death
The human skull is an obvious and frequent symbol of death, found in many cultures and religious traditions. Human skeletons and sometimes non-human animal skeletons and skulls can also be used as blunt images of death; the traditional figures of the Grim Reaper - a black hooded skeleton with a scythe - is one use of such symbolism. The skull and crossbones motif has been used among Europeans as a symbol of both piracy and poison.
Decayed cadavers can also be used to depict death; in medieval Europe, they were often featured in artistic depictions of the danse macabre, or in cadaver tombs which depicted the living and decomposed body of the person entombed. Coffins also serve as blunt reminders of mortality.
Less blunt symbols of death frequently allude to the passage of time and the fragility of life. Clocks, hourglasses, sundials, and other timepieces both call to mind that time is passing, and frequently contain memento mori mottoes themselves. Similarly, a candle both marks the passage of time, and bears witness that it will eventually burn itself out. These sorts of symbols were often incorporated into vanitas paintings, a variety of early still life.
Religious symbols of death
Religious symbols of death and depictions of the afterlife will vary with the religion practiced by the people who use them.
Tombs, tombstones, and other items of funereal architecture are obvious candidates for symbols of death. In ancient Egypt, the gods Osiris and Ptah were typically depicted as mummies; these gods governed the Egyptian afterlife. In Christianity, the Christian cross is frequently used on graves, and is meant to call to mind the crucifixion of Jesus. Some Christians also erect temporary crosses along public highways as memorials for those who died in accidents. In Buddhism, the symbol of a wheel represents the cycles of reincarnation. The symbol of a grave or tomb, especially one in a picturesque or unusual location, can be used to represent death, as in Nicholas Poussin's famous painting Et in Arcadia ego.
Images of life in the afterlife are also symbols of death. Here, again, the ancient Egyptians produced detailed pictorial representations of the life enjoyed by the dead. In Christian folk religion, the spirits of the dead are often depicted as winged angels or angel-like creatures, dwelling among the clouds; this imagery of the afterlife is frequently used in comic depictions of the life after death. In the Islamic view of the Afterlife, death is symbolised by a black and white ram which in turn will be slain to symbolise the Death of Death.
The banshee also symbolizes the coming of death.
Colours used to represent death
Black is the colour of mourning in many European cultures. In East Asia, white is similarly associated with mourning. Furthermore, in Revelation 6 in The Bible, Death is one of the four horsemen; and he rides a pale horse.
- Human skull symbolism
- Skull and crossbones (disambiguation)
- Death's head (disambiguation)
- Solar symbol
- Symbolism (disambiguation)